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What the Pageant of the Masters Reveals About Orange County

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In the early 1930s, California sculptor L. Archibald Garner won a competition to create a monument for a new astronomical observatory in Southern California. His proposal was simple: a 40-foot tall obelisk of brilliant white concrete surrounded by six of astronomy's most influential thinkers. In addition to paying tribute to the likes of Copernicus and Galileo, it is an elegant representation of Art Moderne. And, for nearly 80 years, has marked the entrance to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

On a cool Friday evening early in July, I find myself staring at Garner's sculpture: the figures' stylized robes, their impassive gazes, their astronomical tools. Except none of it is real. I'm in an amphitheater 60 miles south of Griffith Park, in a canyon nearby Laguna Beach. Instead of concrete, Garner's piece is made out of wood and Styrofoam. The sculpted figures are really actors, all painted white; all of whom remain deadly still while the announcer talks about astronomical achievements and quotes Carl Sagan. As a light system projects the cosmos onto a scrim before us, the planets of our solar system float into view. A massive Earth rises just beyond the stage, looking serene and fragile. The music swells. My neighbor gasps, "Oh god, oh god, oh god." And with an explosive crescendo, Act 1 of Pageant of the Masters comes to an end.

The Pageant rendition of 'Music in the Tuileries,' from an Edouard Manet canvas from 1862.

In south Orange County, a place where most cities still sport a new-car smell, there are few traditions as long running (and spectacularly surreal) as the Pageant of the Masters, a two-month-long display devoted to the art of tableaux vivant -- "living pictures" -- in which actors decked out in gallons of make-up pose as well-known works of art.

The Pageant debuted in Laguna Beach in 1933 -- when Orange County was covered in almost 57,000 acres of orange groves, a five-room house in Tustin rented for $25 a month and the Santa Ana Register had a section devoted to "Poultry News." To promote a small, outdoor art fair called the Festival of the Arts, a crew of enterprising Laguna locals dressed up like famous paintings (think: Mona Lisa) and paraded around town. The word spread. Thousands of visitors came to marvel. And soon enough the Pageant's reputation had superseded that of the fair it was meant to promote. "It has definitely evolved from the 1930s," says Diane Challis Davy, who has worked on the Pageant since 1980 and has served as its director since 1996. "Back then, it was just a few people performing on a cliff over Laguna with costumes made from table cloths and whatever else they could find."

Today, it is a multi-million dollar extravaganza that runs for two months at the Irvine Bowl every summer, featuring hundreds of volunteer actors, a 29-piece orchestra and a professional narrator. Additionally, on any given year there are dancers, opera singers, and high-resolution video projections -- not to mention a giant, illuminated balloon of the Earth. All of the technology is directed at one aim: creating a sense of mind-blowing optical illusion. Deft stage lighting and a skilled use of forced perspective have the effect of making the three-dimensional actors look like two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional scenes. In other words, it is totally meta.

The tableau of Georges Seurat's 1890-91 painting 'Le Cirque,' the last piece he would create before he died. The photography doesn't do the tableaus justice since it's the lighting and the optical illusions that gives them the sensation of being flat when you see them in person.

If the Pageant has entrenched itself as an annual OC tradition, so has the sport of making fun of it. Art critics have labeled it "glib." Others have compared it to a "carnival booth, where customers stick their heads through holes in a painted drop and have their pictures taken as cave men or desperadoes." In 2003, it was spoofed on the TV comedy Arrested Development, in a plot that involved a pair of jean shorts and a tableau of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam. When I asked friends and colleagues in Orange County what they thought of the Pageant, many people greeted my question with an eye-roll.

But as a cultural phenomenon, the Pageant of the Masters deserves to be taken seriously. First, because it is beyond weird. Second, because it is so Orange County: an idiosyncratic Cuisinarting of the high, the low and the antiquated -- all in a single serving of theater. There is the element of tableaux vivant, a theatrical style that was last popular during the Victorian era. (It was all the rage in late 19th century London, where it was used as a way of getting around public nudity prohibitions in the name of representing works of Classical art.) There is the illusory set design, which seems right at home in the place that brought the world Disneyland. And there's the art: most of it of the well-known and Western variety, but with enough outliers (both high-brow and kitsch) to keep things appetizingly off balance.

As with most things south Orange County, the show is built on a foundation of predictability. Over the course of the average Pageant, spectators are going to see masters: 17th century Dutch painters, Italian artists of the High Renaissance and American painters of the Gilded Age. This year's program -- built around the theme of "Genius" -- included everything from Michelangelo's Pietà to Winslow Homer's buoyant Breezing Up (A Fair Wind), a 19th century canvas that depicts a crew of towheaded boys enjoying a sail. Barring a couple of exceptions over the decades, every performance is capped with a staging of Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper, for which the audience generally bursts into delighted applause. For the most part, the tone is positive and family friendly.
A tableau of Van Gogh's 'Artist on the Road to Tarascon,' a self-portrait. I was surprised to see that the Pageant featured a couple of Van Gogh's moodier works (this one and the 'Wood Gatherers') -- though they couldn't resist projecting 'Starry Night' at the end of the section devoted to the artist.
That said, even within the pantheon of artistic classics, there are some intriguing selections. Works such as Las Meninas, by Diego Velázquez, and Les Poseuses, by Georges Seurat, offer plenty of art psychology: paintings about painting that address issues related to realism and status. This season, as in others, the Pageant has also included Gian Lorenzo Bernini's 17th century marble The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. The statue is a classic, showing the moment in which the saint's heart has been filled with a love for God. It is also an erotic firecracker: Teresa's eyes are closed, her lips parted, and her head thrown back in the throes of...um, ecstasy -- the type of piece that certainly appeals as much to the devout as it would to the O.C. Housewives.

At the performance I attended, the piece induced "oh mys" and "oh wows" from the audience around me, as well a lot of low moans, of the sort ladies make when eating rich chocolate cake. Davy says that eroticism is not something the Pageant shies away from. (There has been nudity in it since the 1930s.) "We don't feel squeamish about that at all," she says. "It's definitely a sensuous piece. We hint at it in the narration. We just hope we do it in a tasteful way."

The Festival of the Arts is a small outdoor art fair that features work by area artists. In this image from 1947, two kids check out the junior art section -- a tradition that continues to this day.

If the classic works of art offer the Pageant its hook, it's everything else that makes the show such an intriguingly bizarre cultural product. Over the years, there have been tableaux devoted to book illustrations, vintage orange crate labels, French ormolu clocks, Norman Rockwell paintings, thousand-year-old Chinese Buddhas, 1950s hood ornaments, Dresden porcelains and even sci-fi movies. (The latter, in 2001, when the Pageant staged the poster from the 1957 alien-robot flick The Day the Earth Stood Still.) During this year's show, the tableaux on view ricocheted between obscure public monuments, Saturday Evening Post covers and pointillist canvases by Seurat, all in a matter of minutes. It is this complete lack of distinction and earnest veneration of works of popular culture alongside established masterpieces makes the whole exercise feel totally post-Modern.

Moreover, the show's producers manage to insert the occasional living artist in between all the triumphant statues and hokey Americana. In the past, this has included works by painter David Hockney and photographer Sandy Skoglund (an artist who creates tableaux of her own). Last year, the Pageant staged paintings by Sandow Birk -- from a series that chronicled a fictional war between northern and southern California. Birk is based in Long Beach and represented by Koplin del Rio in Culver City and PPOW in New York. His work has been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego and the Warhol Foundation in Pittsburgh. When he got the call from the Pageant, he says he was hesitant. "It's so borderline kitschy," he explains. "But on the other hand, that's its strength."

Birk ultimately agreed to the deal. And last summer he arrived in Laguna to watch several of his paintings from The Great War of the Californias be transformed into tableaux. "It was really amazing -- it was so accurately my painting," he says. "Afterwards, they took me backstage and I saw a painting that had been two feet tall when I painted it. Except here it was 20 feet tall. And all of my brush strokes had been recreated. It was all rather astonishing."

And this is where the Pageant of the Masters gets most fascinating. Forget the line-up of works or the technical wizardry. What these tableaux represent is an unparalleled dialogue with art: the visual culture of our time as digested by Orange County. There is the attention to façade and illusion, a concept that is as present in Disneyland as it is in the architecture of our planned communities and outdoor malls. There is predictability and control. There is a streak of social conservatism paired with a saucy libertarianism -- not to mention various states of undress. At a time when so much cultural product feels generically global, the Pageant of the Masters could not be more of its place and time.
The Festival board gets their artsy on in the 1930s.
Dan Duling has been the Pageant's scriptwriter for the last 32 years. He is a playwright who has a Ph.D. in drama, a writer whose critical pieces have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and L.A Weekly. "It's more than a trick -- it's the connection between art and life," he says of the show. "You just have to embrace the fakery and realize that it has the opportunity to create moments of magic."

It may just be entertainment. But it reveals a lot about the area it's from.

The 2012 Pageant of the Masters is on view at the Irvine Bowl in Laguna Beach through August 31st.

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About the Author

Carolina A. Miranda is freelance magazine writer and radio reporter who has produced stories on culture and travel for Time, ARTnews, Art in America, Fast Company, NPR’s All Things Considered and PRI’s Studio 360. She has also ser...
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